The ship roared to life. Caspian was ready—to die or to escape, it was finally time to leave. Now or never. The centrifuge ring groaned into its rotation, lurching from the primary ring stasis lock. He could see the hammer strokes dappling the metal where he’d finished crafted them just a few months prior. As the ring picked up speed and began slicing through the thin atmosphere of the launch bay, artificial gravity hummed into his bones and shook his body.
He waited for the secondary ring to initiate. Fear burned in his chest. His fingers curled within his gloves to form fists, knuckles straining against the leather, haptic feedback buzzing in his palms. The ring rotations were howling. The Evolo had reached the center of the launch bay. Any moment now. He didn’t know if what he had built was good enough.
Caspian tried to take a breath—possibly his last—as he released the mag tether keeping the ship bound to the station. Destruction or escape. The secondary rings were ready to engage.
He was ready for both.
In a decommissioned space station which orbited a nebula in a remote quadrant of space, there lived a boy named Caspian. He was alone, unloved, with nothing and no one but new stars to talk to as he spun through the darkness of space. He was a solution to a problem no one had asked him to solve, his loneliness a riddle with no answer.
His parents had abandoned him years before. They had forgotten him, lost him, or left him because there wasn’t enough room in the escape pods—he didn’t know. The station’s defenses and artificial intelligence had been set to make sure he didn’t starve to death or accidentally jettison himself out of an airlock. Caspian wasn’t sure if their concern in these commands had been to protect him or the structural integrity of what had been their home. When he tried to remember his parents—to discern their intentions—a wave of nausea, a blurring of the room, consumed him with frightening intensity. Whenever he wept alone in his quarters, as any child would, the station’s AI would put a stop to it. Prompting him with thin metal guides and gentle shocks to get up, go to lessons, get food, run on the track, Caspian learned not to cry. He learned to adapt. To survive.
Every morning, Caspian would wake up and race from his room to the track that ran along the circular main hallway. The ring-shaped station had an observation tower as its axis. It housed the station’s power core. The craft resembled a bobbin threading a cosmic purple tangle in the nebula which it orbited. He used to run the circumference with his mother every morning before she left. She’d jog and he’d zigzag behind her, lost in games he would play.
“Run the path I’m running, Caspian,” she would call back. He hadn’t enjoyed listening to her back then, a regret that weighed his steps down years later as he ran the way she’d taught him.
The rotation of the station’s outer ring created enough artificial gravity to create a stable environment that wouldn’t distort human physiology. However, some of the artgrav regulators hadn’t worked quite right in some areas of the station since the time of the evacuation. Caspian didn’t mind the areas where gravity was weaker.
As he raced this path daily to the mess hall, he felt his body caught by the gravity in heavier sectors where the additional artgrav regulators were still functioning in harmony with the rotation of the station. He imagined he felt the pull of the station toward the nebula as it did its daily rotation, its axis tilting in degrees over the long 1,179 day circuit around the brumous birthplace for new stars. In the 2,976 days since he’d been left alone, he never grew tired of that feeling.
Nothing was wrong with the gravity in the mess. The droids in there were programmed to turn aminos into passable portrayals of what his father had called eggs scrambled. After getting food from the cookbot, Caspian settled on top of his usual table in the hall, right in front of the largest window in the station. He sat with his legs crossed, staring into the violet and scarlet heart of the nebula. Two glowing orbs within looked back at him boxed in by amber pillars jutting across the heart of the gas cloud, ethereal eyes observing the observation deck.
“Couldn’t sleep last night,” Caspian said. “Dreamt about them leaving again. The sirens. I almost remember—”
He shook his head and stared into a region of empty space, fixated on the black for a moment before looking back into the nebula.
The stars being birthed inside the nebula were more spotlights than actual stars: the collection of superheated gases were burning white, torches kindled in the night, as their gravity condensed the dust and gas around them. Caspian had started reading about their creation out of the ship’s archives. He’d begun this out of boredom, but now made himself go through several hours of data every day. The ship’s AI said his activities closely resembled the human tradition of “school.”
The first thing Caspian had ever understood about his life was that the nebula was giving birth to stars, the way his mother would give birth to his baby brother. They were observers, they’d say. His parents had been there to study “the birth”, as they’d called it, and he was there to learn about their work.
“New things take a long time to form,” his father had said, patting Caspian’s mother’s stomach.
“The stars in this nebula will take up to 10 million years,” his mother had replied. “They’re just two bright eyes now.”
“She’d be 54 today, you know,” Caspian said to the nebula, shaking himself out of memories and back into the task of downing the amineggs. He had just over four minutes to finish them before they lost their shape and returned to a milky syrup.
“I wonder if she made it.”
He looked at the pillars glowing in the darkness, hedging in the new stars. To him, they sometimes resembled a nose, or two of them, he supposed. The new stars were eyes as well as the nebula’s children. Lucky, to grow up with a sibling so close.
“I might have a seven-year-old brother,” he said to the nebula, tilting his head. The thought was unnerving. If they’d lived, they would’ve had him five months later. Did he know he had an older brother?
He slammed down his plate. He’d waited too long and the meal had deconstructed itself.
If they’d lived, they would’ve come looking for me by now.
He stormed out of the mess.
After breakfast, Caspian spent an hour in the gym. It had been his father’s habit and he followed it, although it took him years to both grow into and figure out what the equipment was and how to use it without hurting himself.
Afterwards, he did school, then lunch, then more school, then dinner, then back to his room. His mother had brought hundreds of books from earth: volumes wrapped in leather, fabric, or rough paper with hundreds or thousands of pages each. He’d thought they were awkward to use when he was a kid, but in his teens, he was more eager to connect with anything they’d left behind.
When he’d panic, stories helped him breath deeper. Even the terrifying ones helped. No matter the plot, the construction of narratives—the idea that events, both good and bad, had meaning and that people, lost or found, successes or failures, were connected to each other by some larger journey—helped ease his mind.
After a few hours of reading, he’d ask the room to turn off the lights, increase the oxygen supply, and he’d drift off into what he always hoped would be a dreamless sleep. It rarely was.
“I’m not happy,” Caspian said one morning. “Is that okay?”
The nebula did not answer.
“I don’t think you can be happy,” he continued, “but if you could, I’m sure you’d be happy about the state of things. After all,” he gestured with a forkful of amineggs towards the nebula. “Your children are coming along nicely.”
He imagined the nebula would be pleased to hear this.
“Coming along nicely,” was his phrase for everything. Supply analysis projects, recalibrating and harvesting nebula dust from aerocombs, checking long-range sensors from the observation deck— whatever it was that his father did, if it avoided disaster, he would say it was “coming along nicely.”
“I wonder if I can be happy,” he paused to listen to the empty hum of the recirculated air through the ship, “if I stay here. Not that I have a choice in that. That’s the worst part.”
The twinkling furnaces shimmered copper and gold against the indigo gas around them.
“I know,” Caspian’s head dropped. “There’s a pod left. But it’s not steerable and it doesn’t have anywhere near the thrust I’d need to leave. I’d just end up being pulled deeper into your gravity, joining you and the kids.”
The nebula seemed to smile, a thin accretion of gold gas and dust arcing beneath the new stars. Some days it looked pessimistic. Today, it felt indulgent. Patient.
Not that being part of the new baby stars is unappealing. Caspian leaned on the window. There are worse ways to go and any way to go may end up being better than this routine. He thought of his mother’s repetitive running through the circular hallways of the station.
“Follow my path,” she’d call each morning. She was circling the nebula; he had been following her.
He frowned at the window, now focusing on the sharp image of his reflection against the vacuum of space.
The nebula dimmed as Caspian looked into his own eyes, dark as the void surrounding him.
It started small: agitation transmuting into a sharp determination.
Caspian began to dismantle things. He took apart equipment, monitors, and comm systems in unused parts of the station. He had no immediate reason other than wanting a kinesthetic knowledge of how things worked. He’d break something down, then he would build it again, studiously, before pulling it apart once more. When he finished, stripped parts went into component piles.
After a few years, his ability to disassemble an item — rather than destroy — was improving, as was his mechanical knowledge and ability to manipulate an object. Of course, he had other desperate motivations which he could not articulate yet.
He broke down chromatographs. Spectrographs. Micromanipulators. Temperature regulators. Months passed as the dismantling continued, until he came to the non-operational droids in storage. This was different. Cathartic. Caspian pulled each droid apart at the joint, breaking their limbs. He relished the tactile violence as he uncovered circuits, power sources, and wiring. Artificial ligaments popped, the casing snapped, data spines ripped from the top of automatons down along their frames.
After a day of this, his mind surfaced abruptly from the blur of his manual routine. His breath caught. In all his days of being served by the droids, he’d never actually touched one before this.
He hadn’t touched anyone, mechanical or otherwise, in nine years. He looked down at the cybernetic arm he had been working on, a sudden feeling of loss and pain on behalf of the limb. He left the room without looking at the rest of the droids, both those already divided into supply piles and those waiting to be taken apart. It took days before he coaxed himself back to work. He didn’t need servants; he needed parts.
After the droids, Caspian moved on to strip the station. There were living quarters around the station with a host of technologies: thermal, air, and gravitational regulators; biometric monitors; ship control interfaces and computers designed for the job of each member of the crew that had occupied them. He raided them, and then moved onto the gym, launch and storage bays, and broke down two of the three med bays. He rewired his educational lab to function as a smaller command center for the station before closing down the main command floor after he’d stripped most of its parts.
Some days, he was building a bomb—of sorts. A black hole engine would either get him to another outpost while he was still young or it’d kill him. It frightened him that he didn’t care, that he would rather die than remain on the station where he was safe. Alone, but safe. Alone and without purpose. Or love. Or any definition of a life well-lived, as he’d read it in stories. But still—he was safe while he stayed. He didn’t want to stay safe any longer.
On other days, when he wasn’t tempting fate with black holes, he was designing a quantum vacuum engine he’d seen in files that the ship’s chief engineer had kept. The science of both was barely within his grasp. He was bright and had never had anything better to do than learn from the lessons the station was programmed with or the logs left by the scientists and engineers who’d lived on the station. But being self-taught had its limits. Even if he could leave, he still hadn’t solved the problem of turning a pod into a steerable craft with the resources he had on hand, and he took it out on any non-essential item he came into contact with.
Daily as he worked, the air felt tighter to him. It scraped through his throat, squeezed his wrists, bore down on his chest. Reading at night no longer reset his anxiety like it had—it goaded him on. None of his stories featured a character who was completely alone: they had friends, enemies, lovers, mentors. They had destinies and quests. Now, after reading, the ship felt smaller.
He checked in with atmospherics twice a day. Oxygen was normal. Temperature was normal. Gravity was the same as it had always been. But Caspian knew what he felt.
He was being compressed by the singularity of isolation. He didn’t know how much longer he had until all hope of a sane life was lost.
It was the evening of his nineteenth birthday.
Caspian sat in silence in front of the nebula. He ate because he had to, taking the aminos in beverage or pill form. He had been doing this for years after he’d begun repurposing droids.
He looked up through the window and sighed, feeling his muscles relax a bit.
When everything had changed that morning, twelve years past, when he’d woken up to the loss of all he’d known, the nebula had been his only constant, the only connection to his parents, to the idea of a parent. The nebula gathered more than just cosmic material to her for the new stars—she gathered all his stories, all his imagination and longing for family and connection.
He smiled. She was always present, with her babies, celestial eggs woven within the nested striations of the gas cloud. Today, her thin gold mouth seemed skeptical.
Caspian’s smile faded. He had been dreading telling her the truth about what he had been doing. She had never spoken before. What would that voice even sound like? But if she did or could speak, some small part of him feared it would be today.
The nebula, as in the previous twelve years, said nothing in reply.
“I’ve figured out a few options, all risky. I’m not sure which one I’ll choose.” His pulse tripled; the air began to feel tight around his throat again. He saw disapproval reflected through the window.
“And if I do choose the bomb, it’s not me giving up,” he shouted. “There’s only so much education programmed for me, besides obsessing over schematics I’ve found from other engineers. I can study all the data and crew backgrounds I want, but I can’t make up for not knowing enough. It’s not giving up if I can’t make the thing work.”
He hung his head.
“I know. Excuses.”
He raised his chin again.
“It’s just what my life has come to.” He pushed away a tear with the palm of his hand and shook his head. “Joining you isn’t the worst way to go.”
He knelt by the window. This section of the nebula was more scarlet than violet, the amber portions of the nebula facing away from the station’s current position.
His face was dark and crimson in the reflection. It was no longer a boy’s face staring back. His image had a man’s jaw line, a long crooked nose from when he’d broken it stripping parts last year, and dark hair. But his eyes were still those of the boy he had always been, looking out at the dual protostars incubating in the layers of gas and dust as if they were family, better known than his own.
He straightened up and backed away from the glass.
“We are watchers,” his father had said once, when Caspian had asked to go visit the baby stars.
After he’d explained why the station was as close as it was possible to get to the stars without being crushed by their gravity, Father went on to explain the importance of research.
“Other people make things, but they don’t get far without the facts that researchers provide them. Being able to watch without interference is an art, son. When you’re old enough, you’ll figure that out.”
Caspian frowned at the memory. As he grew, he’d hoped some part of his features would grow to resemble his parents, or at least some part of his nature. But he was neither in form nor function like his family. He was made to act, not observe.
He couldn’t wait any longer. He had to leave—no matter what came next.
The Experiment: Subject #94 has been isolated within the experiment for 4,801 days. The subject is showing signs of mental instability. My colleague insists the subject has formed a dissociative attachment to the “surrogate mother” that he’s imagined of the nebula, I theorize that the subject’s interaction with the nebula is a self-regulating mechanism, an anthropomorphization that the subject finds helpful but ultimately knows is fictional.
The subject’s recent designs and early construction show he is either building a method of terminating himself or escaping the experiment.
This development will go a long way to prove his father’s and my theories about the effects of long-term isolation for humans on deep-space colonization missions, especially on the efficacy of bred-explorers versus past programs’ usage of adult conscripts who deteriorated after transitioning from colonies to deep-space missions.
If the subject is successful, the findings will have huge effects on the possibility of resuming the program’s human-piloted expeditions to new habitable systems.
– Dr. Susan Thayer, 04.13.2117
The nearest settlement was a labor colony in the Wolf 1061 system, fifteen years away. If Caspian could reach it, he’d be thirty-six when he arrived.
He tried to stifle his anxiety at the thought. It’s still plenty of time.
To get there, he needed at least thirty years of supplies. He trusted his navigational skills, but trusted his skepticism better. A fool has one plan, but a wise man has three, he’d read in one of Mother’s old books once. He made sure to pack those as well. It was ambitious enough to design a deep space passenger vessel out of an oversized escape pod, but trying to design something to induce long-term hibernation was beyond him. The drugs that remained in the med bay would only help him manage anxiety. There was not nearly enough adenosine to induce the kind of state he’d need to sleep for more than a year. He needed every book, magazine, and game he could to preserve his mental state. He harvested these from his library as well as from abandoned crew rooms, unwilling to leave them despite the space they’d take up in his new ship. Books had provided him stability over the years.
Caspian rolled his eyes. He hoped they had.
Fifteen years of distraction to stave off madness. He shivered at the thought. He had been sorting supplies in the mess, one of the very few rooms he’d left intact. I’ve only made it this far because I had room to run.
His insides curdled as he pictured the tiny pod he was choosing over the vast space station. He looked up at the nebula and, for the first time, imagined what it would be like to see it from a distance. There were two portholes on either end of the craft. He’d be able to view the nebula as he traveled away from it. For a while, at least.
He blinked tears away. He would be losing family all over again. Caspian realized he’d stopped breathing. He tried to force down jagged breaths, picturing himself leaving in the tiny craft he’d retrofitted. The lights in the room seemed to grow dim. His whole body felt the splintered lack of oxygen, the tightening of each muscle.
He stared down at a mess of paper in his hands. In his panic, he’d ripped the spine of an ancient soft-back copy of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. He cringed and laid it gently down on the table beside him. He turned back to the nebula, twinkling back at him from the void.
“I don’t know if I can do this.”
Susan stares at Caspian from the Observation’s vast monitoring deck. He is talking to the nebula again. Jack walks up next to her, an illuminated file hovering in front of him.
“Sensors show elevated cortisol levels.” Jack looks up, an eyebrow raised. “Very elevated. Your side of the family.”
“If he gets anything from either of us, he gets his analytical nature from me and his inability to handle stress from you. If he doesn’t kill himself, it will be a testament to the way I raised him through the station.”
“We designed this experiment, Susan. Together,” Jack replies, once again focusing on the data. “I doubt he’ll make it. The engine’s use of the chameleon field is highly theoretical and there’s no way to test it. Just the calculations of a child.”
“That child is in his twenties and has been studying physics and engineering since he was eight. Not that it matters. If he doesn’t make it, this experiment is still a success. He has become a team unto himself: engineer, mechanic, theoretician, captain, navigator…”
“If this team of one survives, then yes, it might support your theory that human explorers are once more superior to probes.”
“Those raised in the program are,” Susan snaps. “Probes are limited. They only discover what we tell them to, they don’t ask, they don’t—“
“Go insane? People do.” Jack shakes his head.
“Subject #94 has made it farther than the other subjects around the nebula. Only four of them have looked for a viable way off the station, and after #107’s nuclear incident, #94 stands to make the first decent shot of it.”
“If he can escape the gravity of the nebula,” Jack responds in a pedantic tone that makes Susan’s back teeth hurt. “Which he’s not supposed to, I’ll remind you. It’s all well and good that he tries—that shows resilience—but this kind of thing is supposed to be beyond what they’re able to do.”
“We’re too far away to do anything about that.”
“You’re only saying that because you’re… attached.” His lip curls in disgust at the word.
“I’m saying that because I hope our experiment proves that humans can exist in deep space in isolation without going mad.”
Jack shakes his head. “He’s one of hundreds, as is this particular experiment. One of them might prove your hypothesis. Many have proved mine.”
They watch #94 storm out of the mess, several more torn books on the table.
“I gave him The Dark Tower when he was six,” Susan says. “It was an accident—something silly and sentimental—but as I watch him talk to the nebula, I wish I’d done it with the others, to see how narratives help…”
She trails off, realizing Jack has already walked away. She makes a few notes before walking away herself to the next subject’s screen. It bothers her, this aberration, caused by a moment of affection. Carelessness. It violates the control she needs.
More experiments will have to be set up to replicate the results, test other variables, if he succeeds. Citizens always breed more than allowed by their colony’s populace dispensation. Future subjects abound.
After another twenty months of work, Caspian’s ship was ready to leave. He had installed communications systems and long-range sensors and waited until the station’s orbit coincided with the best possible launch path for his course to the Wolf 1061 colony at Cepta Pactances. He had finalized the modifications to the Casimir thrusters and tested out the miniaturized version of the station’s Sabatier life support generators for a month: tinkering with air quality, pressure, water, and waste before he was satisfied moving his books into the living compartment. He had two days and four hours to launch, according to his calculations.
He rolled his eyes at this. According to my calculations. He felt exposed by the amount of all he didn’t know and wondered if his own mind was luring him into a trap.
Caspian tried to continue working. It was moving day and all his belongings were being sorted into their proper places. There was even a small treadmill he’d worked up. The centrifuge that he had outfitted around the craft to hold the engines would create a slight gravity bubble, roughly to the same degree that had enjoyed running on in the main hallway of the station. He hoped, as he installed it, that between it and the books, he wouldn’t crack too early.
His breath became thin again, scratching against the shell of his chest.
I won’t crack at all, he lied to himself. He knelt down and tried to force himself out of the rapid gasps. It’d been happening more often as he’d spent time working in the escape craft.
Caspian shook his head. He had to stop calling it that. He searched the compartment as if the name would be written somewhere obvious for him to read. All the names he knew were from stories, those left in the books from his mother or the crew. He wanted something that wasn’t left behind, something that would remind him in the following years of why he was leaving home in the first place. He was searching for meaning by seeking others out. He was rejecting one home to find another. He clenched his fists.
“I am escaping,” he said to his knees, holding them tight against his chest. “Evolo. I’m flying away.”
He closed his eyes. It was a simple name. He felt it settle into him, exhaustion and relief releasing his muscles from the adrenaline. He got up and resumed his work.
Tomorrow the Evolo would launch.
The Experiment: Subject #94 has been isolated within the experiment for 5,260 days. His mental state continues to deteriorate. The Observation’s engineering teams have checked his launch calculations. There is no evidence to support either a successful launch or termination of the subject with the ship’s ignition.
According to our calculations, in the case of a catastrophic event, the resulting damages to station #94 will affect the surrounding cloaked stations of Subjects #92, #93, #95 and #97. Those stations will be moderately to severely affected, and their experiments will be concluded accordingly.
Dr. Jack Thayer, 07.16.2118
It was time.
The ship was on, a hum reverberating off the walls and instruments. Caspian was ready. He had spent the night before curled up in the mess, watching the nebula blur and glimmer through his tears. He had been able to watch the young stars glowing in amorphous amber all morning before saying a last goodbye and heading to the launch bay.
Seated in the ship, he put on his control gloves to operate the helm. He looked up through the ship’s window at the centrifuge rings. His jaw tightened.
Now or never. He inhaled. If you’re right, you’re on your way—into the stars and away from this prison.
If you’re wrong, you won’t feel it. Not for long.
Caspian slipped on the augmented imaging goggles. The helm was now tinted blue, but through the goggles, functions for the ship appeared, illuminated over the helm’s console around him.
Gripping the virtual lever for the engine, he began to bring it towards himself when a signal appeared on his comms display.
He was receiving a message. How? Who? His hand hovered over the incoming signal, as if it might bite, before accepting the communication.
“Caspian,” a voice crackled into the ship. “It’s Mom.”
He hung his head. The day I leave is the day I finally lose it?
He ignored the hallucination and continued to move the lever, activating the engines embedded within the rings. The humming of the rings grew louder as they began a slow revolution around the Evolo’s hull. The ship started to slide forward off its mooring prongs.
“Caspian. It’s your mother.” The voice was pleading, familiar. “I know this is sudden. But I am alive and…” It was a moment before she spoke again. “I’ve been watching you. I can’t see you now, but I can see your ship.”
Watching? Caspian frowned, glancing through the window of the craft to the high ceilings of the launch bay. This isn’t real.
He returned his gaze to the rings. As they turned, the thrum of the engines powering up suffused him, a symphony of sound and increasing gravity pressing into his bones. He checked the probability amplitudes on the QED monitor, fermionic lines dancing across the screen. His fingers drummed on his legs as his feet tapped. He refused to look at the comm.
There was a crackling sound as the voice cleared its throat.
“Your father and I think you’re going to die if you launch. He felt you should be left to make your own choices, but I wanted…” The voice broke off.
“I’m sure you have questions—you’re part of a great experiment meant to help us understand the amazing things people like you can do with the right tools and education, even if they’re left alone in space. Our exploration of the universe, our place amongst the stars—the path you’ve been on, being raised to be self-sufficient—you’re very important, you know.”
Her voice was meant to be placating, but sounded thin. Pressed for time and patience. He remembered that tone from when she tried to get him to hold still for shots as a kid. He had stopped watching the rings and was staring at the comms monitor instead. He stared at the waveforms of her voice undulating—they were something. More than a memory. Somewhere inside him, as he watched the lines of audio lift and fall, the horror of her words began to take hold. He felt numb, as if he’d descended miles into himself and had to use a set of long-range relays just to reach his mouth.
“Caspian, if you don’t stop those rings, you will most likely die.”
Caspian looked up. The primary ring was spinning faster, the force of its energy had moved the ship. When it reached a certain point, the secondary ring would initiate, positioning the engines for the ship so that it would fall forward. According to my calculations. He frowned to himself.
“Please, Caspian. You’ve done so well. I don’t want to see all of this wasted. There’s so much more to discover.”
His fingers flexed, sending artificial sensations prickling along his haptic-gloved hands. Somewhere in the back of his mind, over the last several minutes, a small part of him was already fantasizing about reuniting with his parents. It was an alteration of a dream he’d had many times before but had always dismissed: they’d had amnesia but finally remembered him. Then somehow, they would find their way back to him. They would pick up where they’d left off. Everything would be fine.
But he was nothing but data—an accomplishment or a failure. Not a person.
“Caspian!” Susan shouted.
The ring’s energy was singing at a higher pitch now. Caspian could feel it in every muscle. The Evolo was positioned for take-off. The secondary rings were almost ready. They would be ready as soon as he engaged them, that is. But he had to know—
“Did you ever love me?”
He winced as he heard himself ask this, almost spitting it through clenched teeth. He knew the answer. If he’d been loved, he wouldn’t have been left.
“I loved you,” Susan said flatly. “I care for all my children throughout the experiment. You are not an exception. I know you feel this was cruel, but that’s only because you don’t understand yet. We knew what was best. We’ve learned so much from your time on your station—”
This woman wasn’t coming to rescue him.
Caspian’s eyes narrowed. He pulled up the course for Cepta.
“Wait a few more years. Please. We can meet you. We’ll debrief you, apply details of your situation to future experiments. There’s so much I want to tell you,” Susan paused before she affected a more tender tone. “You’ve been so brave, my boy.”
The secondary ring indicator had begun to glow a minute before but now it was a beacon warning him to initiate or get torn apart by the mounting energy of the first ring. It truly was now or never. But now—family was an option. Mother would meet him. He’d see her, find answers—continue to be a part of her observations.
Follow her path. Again.
A barrage of memories flowed past him as his breath rasped shallow in his throat. Mother, running. Father, lecturing. The morning he woke up alone. Reading stories to the nebula. All his days of screaming into empty hallways, tearing things apart. Bloody knuckles where he’d beaten an airlock door when he was twelve, so desperate to escape, to not be on his own any longer.
His breath was a panting staccato, inhaling the ship’s tin-tasting air. He tried to stop himself from blacking out. He pulled out an oxygen mask he’d prepared by the command console.
He closed his eyes. He thought of the nebula and her family, of the distance that existed between the station and the hydrostatic center of the gas cloud. He thought of the protostars, unfeeling and unknowing. They weren’t his family any more than the woman speaking with him now and in that instant, Caspian aged a decade.
“I’m choosing my own path, Mother.”
He closed the comms and with one raised glove descending onto the engine light, he engaged the secondary rings. The ship’s hum turned into a howl as it fell forward, approaching the open bay doors.
As the centrifuge rings swirled about in their ever-increasing momentum, the Evolo flew out into the dark field of stars, soft and silent.
The course locked, Caspian leaned back from the console, removing his gloves and goggles. The gravity generated by the rings was no longer compounded with the station’s. He stretched his arms over his head, fingers brushing storage compartments above him. Shrinking back into his seat, he cast a dark look at the screen beside him. He wanted to raise the comms again, hale his mother, but no.
There would be time for that in the coming years, to interrogate and lay bare his hurt and awakening sense of rage, but only once he was truly under way. He needed to be unable to turn back from the direction he had set before they spoke next. He needed to be untraceable.
Entering the living section in the stern of the ship, he could see his nebula. The Evolo was at full speed and had already gained enough distance from the station that it had disappeared. It shouldn’t have, but it was as if some kind of optical shielding had engaged now that he was at a distance.
The nebula was more beautiful and so much bigger than he’d thought. The two stars in the heart of the cloudy iridescence were staring back at him, smaller and smaller as the ship sped away, the nebula stretching further upwards and downwards as more of her came into view, a rainbow tear in the fabric of the dark universe. He had spent his whole life following her, as he had Susan, orbiting and observing, never choosing.
He placed his hand on the window in farewell before he sat down. He took a deep breath, an expanse of peace welling up within his chest
My path. My story.
He picked up a book and set his eyes on the window at the helm.
The stars seemed to slip and streak past him as he moved on, heading towards freedom, heading into the dark unknown.
Originally published in Collective Realms Magazine, January 2021